Bangladesh: Friend or Foe?

Indian and Bangladesh history intertwined irrevocably years ago when India played a huge part in the birth of Bangladesh. However the relationship between the countries has been going downhill steadily.India is hot topic again in Bangladesh these days, with Sheikh Hasina’s visit and comments by our acting cricket captain hogging the national headlines. The relatively minor media coverage given to both events in Indian media highlights the prime Bangladeshi concern in its relation with India, we do not treat them as equals.

India’s importance to Bangladesh and vice verse cannot be understated. Bangladesh holds the key to several security and economic issues for the north-east and a stable and friendly Bangladesh would go a long way in increasing stability in the region and increasing our political depth in South Asia. Most of the Indian concerns revolve around the extremist elements of the North East and lately ISI elements taking refuge in Bangladesh. The amount of illegal immigration that happens across this border has also become a major concern. The other important issue from India’s standpoint is the connectivity that could be brought to the North East through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal.

On the other hand India is Bangladesh’s largest trade partner, biggest neighbor and controls the inflow of almost all water resources into the country. Their prime concern is the Tipaimukh project that could adversely affect the water inflow into Bangladesh.  Other issues include the border skirmishes which allegedly involve crimes by the Indian BSF and the settlement of the maritime border between the two countries.

Despite these diverse issues, both countries can only profit from a better relationship between the countries. The Bay of Bengal contains huge natural gas resources and this could change the energy scenario for both the countries. But exploration cannot start until the borders are settled to mutual satisfaction. Similarly the connectivity that Bangladesh offers to the North East would ensure a free flow of goods to and from the North-East, thus releasing the region from the physical isolation it has struggled against. Bangladesh can profit immensely from better trade relations with India and it can only result in the improvement of the quality of life of its people.

Prior to the Indian visit, Sheikh Hasina laid the foundation by the arrest of ULFA’s top leaders hiding in Bangladesh. The visit too was successful with several security pacts related to exchange of convicts and fighting terrorism being signed. India has offered a US$1 Billion credit line for several development projects and a power sharing agreement has also been agreed upon. Furthermore Bangladesh has offered the use of her ports at Chittagong and Mongla and discussion is on to reduce the tariffs and import duties on Bangladeshi goods.

Though the visit surely marks a thaw in the relationships between the countries, there are still several roadblocks to work upon. The Tipaimukh project has not been resolved and the criticism leveled at Sheikh Hasina over the agreements in her country do not look good either. Events over the next year would determine if this is false dawn or the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship.

Praveen Desabandu

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